How to write a performance review

TL;DR: Many companies no longer opt for traditional employee reviews — yearly top-down feedback sessions tied to raises or dismissals are prone to being biased and counter-productive.

Instead, modern, people-first organizations are
tailoring reviews to company values and intentions, as well as employee strengths, goals, and needs.

Employee-centric reviews support individual career development while driving alignment and business growth. That’s why it’s vital to understand what to highlight in a performance review.

💪 Performance reviews can be rewarding when done right

Leapsome empowers you to deliver meaningful, effective reviews that develop your talent and boost feelings of belonging.

👉 Learn more

What’s an employee performance review?

An employee performance review — also known as performance evaluation or appraisal — is a formal assessment of a staff member’s performance within a certain period. During performance reviews, managers evaluate employee strengths and areas of growth, share actionable steps for improvement, ensure alignment with company goals, and communicate expectations. 

When run effectively, modern performance reviews:

  • Encourage learning and development
  • Improve employee engagement
  • Promote company culture
  • Identify and resolve issues before they become major problems

Tejumade Adeyinka, Head of Growth at BuyCoins, shared her thoughts with us:

“I like getting reviews because it helps me develop my skill set and advance in my career. They’re written by my direct manager, my indirect manager, and my peers. Then, my manager and I develop a growth plan to help me in my weak spots and it’s done twice a year. It makes me feel seen.”

However, performance reviews still have a poor reputation among managers, employees, and people ops leaders. According to Gallup, only 14% of employees strongly agree that their appraisals motivate them to improve.

What does an effective performance review look like?

Indeed, there are many grim tales of employee reviews. Most complaints boil down to the way many managers write reviews without empathy or consideration for their report’s job description. In fact, only about 29% of employees feel the feedback they receive in reviews is accurate and fair. Women and BIPOC individuals are even more likely to receive low-quality and unactionable feedback than their white male counterparts, according to linguistics-focused software company Textio. 

Writing meaningful employee reviews requires empathy as well as a genuine desire to help employees grow and develop in their careers. It shouldn’t be about punishing lower-performing employees and rewarding high-achievers. 

A well-written performance appraisal form helps with employee retention and is part of any successful employee engagement model. Good reviews should:

  • Use clear, concise, and empathetic language
  • Take the employee’s feelings and personality into consideration  
  • Focus on past and future performance
  • Include feedback for both the manager and the employee
  • Invite peers and other managers to take part in the process
🚀 Deliver performance reviews that drive engagement 

Leapsome lets you celebrate your people and promotes rapid development.

👉 Learn more

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Wann Sie dieses Playbook verwenden sollten

When to use
this playbook

This playbook aims to help managers write productive employee reviews that are transparent, fair, and growth-focused. People ops/HR professionals can also use this playbook to guide their people (especially first-time managers) on delivering great feedback via performance reviews.

Other review respondents (non-managers) also benefit from this playbook!

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Was Sie für dieses Playbook benötigen

What you’ll need for
this playbook

A system of mutual growth and development

A culture that supports growth and development shows employees how feedback can help them improve. Companies that support employee growth will take time to understand their people’s career goals and provide development and training resources to help them achieve those goals.

A transparent and fair environment 

A transparent environment helps employees trust that performance reviews will be used for their development, and not for punishment. It encourages reports to engage in the review process.

Hinweise & Tipps
  • Consider implementing the practice of radical candor within your organization. This approach empowers employees and managers alike by encouraging them to balance empathy and clarity when giving constructive feedback in the workplace.

How to run this People Ops Playbook:

Wie Sie dieses People Ops Playbook durchführen:

Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of conducting regular evaluations and shared some tips on how to do so effectively, let’s dig into how to write a performance review in six steps.

1. Review your report’s current job description

Integrating an employee’s job description into their performance reviews gives you an accurate picture of their intended responsibilities and helps avoid incorrect or unfair assessments.

It also gets everyone on the same page, drives transparency, reduces employee stress, and increases morale.

2. Review past performance review data

Check past data like previous feedback and notes from 1:1 meetings to highlight where your report has improved, where they still need help, and where their performance is declining. This is not to punish them, but to follow their progress and provide support.

If this isn’t an employee’s first performance appraisal at your company, look at past reviews to gauge their overall performance, growth, and areas for improvement. Using a people management tool like Leapsome makes this step much easier. Also, documenting feedback is a great way to measure employee growth and performance for future reviews.

3. Reflect on the aim of employee reviews

Reflect on why you’re writing this specific review in the first place. To decide who to reward or promote? To understand the development and growth of an employee? To see how each staff member contributes to your overall company objectives?

Understanding the aim of evaluations will help you stay focused on providing a valuable experience to your employees while uncovering the best ways to improve the company.

4. Discuss your aim with your report

Now, help your employees understand the purpose behind their appraisal — and be explicit that it’s development-focused rather than linked to pay. 

Development-centric reviews encourage a growth mindset and enable your people to take ownership of their careers. Instead of having staff members become frustrated with not meeting certain standards, motivate them by:

  • Asking them how they want to grow and what they think they need to do to get there
  • Encouraging them to share their future goals

And before you start your performance review, you may also want to clarify the following with your employees for full transparency: 

  • Who writes the reviews
  • Which areas they’ll be evaluated in
  • How they’ll be evaluated
  • What type of questions will be asked

5. Write objectively

How can you phrase your performance reviews to convey feedback clearly and accurately?

  • Consider gathering feedback from the report’s peers and indirect manager to complement your own. This way, you avoid being their sole evaluator and have the chance to consider issues from various perspectives.

  • Rely on your observations and gather examples and tangible evidence.

  • Use performance checklists whenever possible. Using a list can help you evaluate the employee on a skill-by-skill basis and think critically about areas of improvement. 

💡 Read our playbook on how to give constructive feedback to learn more.

6. Send out & discuss the reviews

You can hand out documents or printed versions of performance reviews, but the most effective and time-saving method (which will also help you analyze results) is to use a performance management tool like Leapsome.

And if you’re carrying out your employee appraisal in person or via video conference, use your performance review document to guide your conversation. You can even send it out to your report in advance so they can take a closer look at their strengths and areas for improvement and prepare any relevant questions.

What a great performance review can achieve

A development-focused appraisal can guide your people in the right direction and show your commitment to their development. Some other benefits of an effective performance review include: 

  • Guiding employees as they grow and develop their skills. This helps improve their work performance, benefiting their career growth and the company’s overall success.

  • Encouraging managers to get to know their reports better. Understanding people’s strengths and areas for development helps guide managers on the tasks they assign to their team members and why.

  • Helping employees understand company expectations, rules, and standards. This drives alignment and ensures employees and leaders are on the same page.

  • Improving the working relationship and encouraging honest and transparent communication between employees discourages unhealthy competition.

  • Making it easier for employees to ask for help, voice their opinions, and be confident about the value they bring to the company.

You should not use employee reviews to…

  • Punish employees for poor performance. Identifying improvement potential doesn’t equal failure and it’s much better to use reviews for development, not judgment.

  • Only examine an employee’s most recent performance. Instead, focus on their actions during the entire review period and identify trends between previous cycles to get a better picture of their development.

  • Offer one-off feedback. Alternatively, follow up on the appraisal to keep the momentum going, offer next steps, and ensure the objectives you discussed aren’t forgotten.
  • Rank employees against each other, which creates unhealthy competition and resentment between teammates.

Skills to assess during a performance review

Skills and qualities you should pay attention to during employee reviews include:

  • Communication 
  • Teamwork
  • Ingenuity and creativity 
  • Self-confidence 
  • Kindness and respectfulness 
  • Adaptability
  • Eye for detail 
  • Responsibility 
  • Being process-driven
  • Time management
  • Productivity and quality of work
  • Attendance and engagement 
  • Punctuality 
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership skills

9 tips for effective performance reviews

We’ve put together a list of nine tips to help you conduct the review process in a way that improves performance, builds trust, and fosters engagement.

1. Turn the review process into an open conversation

Performance reviews should be a dialogue as opposed to a lecture. That way, you can continuously clarify your understanding of issues, discuss improvement opportunities, and showcase your commitment to your report’s professional development. This creates a culture of transparency and trust and turns an otherwise intimidating process into a collaborative one. 

Some questions that invite discussion include:

  • Have I understood this situation correctly? 
  • What do you think about what I’ve just shared?
  • Do you think my assessment of this situation is fair?
  • Could you help me understand this issue more clearly?
  • This is how I view the current circumstances. What are your thoughts?
  • What do you think about that?
  • What do you think you can do to improve in this area?
  • How can we best support you?

And remember: be empathetic when writing reviews. We’re all human and make mistakes.

2. Require employees to write self-assessments

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Self-assessments encourage employees to take an active part in their appraisals

Completing self-assessments ensures your reviews are collaborative rather than top-down. They can give you a better understanding of your reports’ perspective and help you empathize with them. Finally, they make your people feel more engaged, confident, and empowered within their roles. 

Here are a few other ways to make sure employees are actively involved in their performance reviews:

  • Encourage them to include specific examples of their strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Offer them a chance to reflect on past performance and proud moments.
  • Ask them to share future development goals.

3. Disclose if reviews affect salary raises & layoffs

Good performance reviews help your people feel both supported and challenged. But in many organizations, evaluations are part of the criteria for salary and promotion assessments, which gives them an almost reproachful nature.  

And since decoupling employee evaluation and compensation isn’t always realistic, it’s important to communicate their link and its effect on your people. This fosters transparency and psychological safety. 

In your review, use your compensation plan as a guide to talk about any relevant salary raises, salary increments, professional growth opportunities, or layoffs.

4. Run performance reviews frequently

Holding performance review meetings only once or twice a year creates unnecessary stress for your employees and blocks them from making continuous improvements

We recommend conducting monthly or quarterly evaluations to build a dynamic feedback culture and mitigate issues before they become tricky to resolve. This way, you can better understand your people, boost engagement, and clarify individual and company goals.

5. Start with areas for improvement

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Recount areas for improvement first so you can end staff evaluations on a positive note

Don’t save constructive feedback for the end of your appraisals. Talking about areas of growth right after highlighting strengths distracts employees from their wins. Instead, begin performance reviews by describing the issues that need to be addressed. Detail the situation and its impact, and present your perspective while listening to your team member’s side of the story.

Remember, for many people, constructive feedback still carries a negative — or even accusatory — connotation, instead of encouraging growth. So, if possible, get it out of the way first.

And always conclude your reviews on a positive note by showing your report you recognize and appreciate their contributions to the team and wider organization.

6. Give specific examples

Feedback is only meaningful and actionable when followed by examples that outline the “what,” “when,” and “where” of the situation. Vague feedback is not only ineffective, but can also be perceived as judgmental and biased. As such, it’s more likely to make the recipient feel defensive instead of helping them improve. 

So, mention examples of when the team member did something well and when they didn’t — and don’t forget to provide context. Saying, “I feel sometimes you invest too much time scheduling meetings on less important topics,” isn’t precise enough. Specify instances where this happened to make it clear that your feedback isn’t a personal attack.

Interested in reading more feedback and performance review examples? Our guide to 27 employee feedback examples & the right way to use them has got you covered.

7. Keep your biases in check

Be aware that by conducting a review, you’re effectively judging someone. And judgments are vulnerable to biases because humans are innately biased. A biased review is an incorrect assessment of someone’s performance and helps no one.

To help reduce your bias, do a bias reduction exercise before writing a review to prime your cognitive system and stay alert.

💡 Check out our step-by-step playbook on how to avoid bias in performance reviews to learn more.

8. Choose your words with care

Avoid accusatory language, generalizations, and “you” statements when reflecting on your report’s assessment period. Instead, give specific examples of what did or didn’t go well.

And be mindful that no matter how accurate your comments are and how much context you provide, your assessment of another person’s work still reflects your opinion. So be honest about that fact and use sentences like “I feel that…” and “I think that…” to show empathy and open up a conversation.

9. Tie feedback to actionable tips

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Feedback should be followed up with actionable tips in order to be effective

Sharing areas for improvement without providing next steps and key takeaways will leave employees feeling lost and unmotivated. So, when sharing constructive feedback, always make actionable recommendations.

Constructive feedback is a way to foster trust, ownership, and collaboration between employees. 

  • Destructive feedback looks like this: “You should fix your data analysis.”
  • Constructive feedback looks like this: “Have you tried to visualize the data to see if there are gaps in your analysis? You can use Google Charts for that. And a pie chart may be better to visualize than a line chart.”

Follow-up best practices for employee appraisals

Need more tips on running effective performance reviews? Why not take a look at our performance review cheat sheet to level you up in just 2 minutes.

Have a development talk with your report

Schedule a time to go through the review. Communicate clearly, be empathetic, and let your report know you’re available to answer questions — during and after the development talk. If you feel it’s needed, remind them their work is not a reflection of their worth and can be improved.

You should also use this time to create a development plan for and with your employee to guide their growth. It’s a good idea to prepare for this talk by researching courses and other learning resources to recommend to your report. You can also use a tool like Leapsome to set up individualized learning paths.

Document employee reviews 

Document reviews in a centralized place (like a people management tool). This way, writing future reviews, tracking progress, and creating a learning plan for your report will be much easier.

Don’t just share feedback during reviews. Feedback should be ongoing and never catch the employee by surprise. Continuous feedback makes you more than a manager: You should be a coach to your reports.

🚀 Interested in implementing reviews to boost employee performance and engagement? Check out our playbook on how to run a 360° review. 😉

Deliver impactful, growth-oriented performance reviews with Leapsome

Leapsome is the only platform that closes the loop between performance management, employee engagement, and learning.

In this playbook, you learned about the importance of employee performance reviews and how to conduct them effectively. Watch this video to learn more about filling out assessments using Leapsome’s performance review software.

🚀 Give reviews that make a difference

Leapsome gives you the tools to deliver growth-oriented performance reviews that increase engagement and improve performance.

Request a demo
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Frequently Asked Questions

Are employee performance reviews confidential?

Employees should have a right to the confidentiality of their employee reviews. Results should be kept between the manager and the report; however, managers may want to discuss it with people ops/HR or their own manager if they have concerns. This may be necessary, but should be done respectfully.

What questions should I ask in an employee review?

What are the main mistakes with employee performance reviews?

  • Rating quantity over quality because quantity is easier to measure (this is called expediency bias);
  • Not having a firm objective in place before reviewing employees;
  • Not giving actionable feedback;
  • Focusing only on weaknesses;
  • Overwhelming the reviewee with too much information.

How often should employees get a performance review?

Besides running biannual 360° performance reviews for all employees, we recommend that you support new hires with structured feedback during their probation period (e.g., at 2 and 5 months for a 6-month probation period).

Should employee reviews be anonymous?

Performance appraisal feedback can be anonymous, but allowing for non-anonymous feedback gives people the chance to follow up.

Who should write an employee review?

Having only one respondent can lead to poor judgment. For a more accurate measure of employee performance, we recommend a holistic approach where peers, managers, and customers/partners review the same person. Some companies don’t include external contributors.

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